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NBA: Western Conference Preview, Breakdown and Predictions

Simon Cherin-GordonContributor IIIOctober 24, 2012

NBA: Western Conference Preview, Breakdown and Predictions

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    For years, the balance of power in the NBA has resided out west.

    Since the end of the Michael Jordan era in Chicago, the Western Conference has won 10 of the last 14 NBA titles. Even more impressively, the West has finished with a better record than the East for 13 years running.

    Every time it looks like the balance of power begins to shift eastward—whether it be Shaq in South Beach, the Celtics grabbing KG and Ray Allen, the Knicks wooing Amare and Carmelo or the Nets keeping D-Will—the West always responds. And not always through blockbuster trading or big-ticket free-agent signings.

    While Dwight Howard to LA was certainly an upward move for the Western Conference, it is not the reason the West will again reign supreme. After all, Andrew Bynum went East in the trade, and the Heat, new-look Nets and revamped Celtics more than cancel out Dwight's move.

    No, the reason the West will once again dominate the NBA this season is the same reason it has for over a decade: smarter management, better drafting, deeper rosters.

    Of every Western Conference team to miss the playoffs last season, only the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets didn't improve, and even then, both teams had commendable offseasons considering the hands they were dealt.

    Still, the top eight will be incredibly difficult for the up-and-comers to crack, as no team clearly got worse, while the Lakers, Nuggets and Clippers greatly improved.

    So who will emerge from this stacked field? Here's a look into the prospects of 2012-13 for all 15 Western Conference teams.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23)

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    The Thunder may still be one of the NBA's youngest teams, but their sense of urgency may be higher than that of any other. After back-to-back deep playoff runs ending in frustrating eliminations, the Thunder know that their time is now. With the new luxury tax, retaining all their young stars will be difficult, and Oklahoma City will use this reality to crush throughout the regular season and deep into the playoffs.


    Biggest Reason They'll Finish First

    Explosiveness. As if Durant, Westbrook and Harden charging 100 MPH at defenses wasn't too much already, the Thunder have added super-athlete Perry Jones to their bench.

     

    Team MVP

    Kevin Durant. Westbrook is a close second, but KD is the toughest cover in the league.


    X-Factor

    Serge Ibaka. The defensive monster broke out offensively in the postseason, hitting mid-range shots and cleaning up the offensive glass. This helped the Thunder get past the bigger Lakers and Spurs. They'll need him to continue to grow offensively to take the final step.

2. Los Angeles Lakers (57-25)

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    After a second consecutive round two exit, it became apparent that LA needed to make drastic changes or rebuild. Of course, as long as Kobe's playing, rebuilding is not an option. As a result, the team added the NBA's best center and interior defender, along with the league's best offensive point guard. The bench will again be thin, but this roster would have a chance to win the title without Kobe. With them, they look like the favorite.


    Biggest Reason They'll Finish Second

    Defense. Sure, the offense could be sensational, but this team will be best on the other end, where Dwight Howard will patrol the paint while Pau Gasol blocks shots from the weak side. Gasol, along with Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace, will make Howard's job easier than it's ever been. That's scary.


    Team MVP

    Dwight Howard. Nash will—if allowed by Kobe to run the offense—transform the team. Kobe will dominate on both ends. But Dwight's impact on defense and the glass will alleviate pressure everywhere, and he is the first teammate of Kobe's since Shaq who can carry the team every other night.


    X-Factor

    Bench. If the Lakers starting five works as planned, a mediocre bench will be enough to win a title (see: Miami). But if Kobe and Nash show age or Dwight can't stay healthy, the Lakers bench will need to play above its heads if LA is thinking about a title. 

3. Denver Nuggets (53-29)

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    The Carmelo-less Nuggets have looked every bit as good as they did with Melo, and they nearly knocked out the Lakers last season. The deep, big, offensively explosive Nuggets seemed to lack only perimeter defense and a strong one-on-one wing player, and they got just that in Andre Iguodala this summer. This team is a go-to scorer away from contending for a title, and that player may already be on the roster.

    Biggest reason They'll Finish Third

    Depth. The Nuggets don't have the starting five of Oklahoma City, either LA team or Memphis, but they have the best bench in the conference, as they're stocked with size, strength, shooting and athleticism. Neither fatigue nor injury will slow this team.


    Team MVP

    Ty Lawson. The way that Lawson played in the playoffs last season was scary, but it was only a sign of things to come. Lawson can control the pace of the game by playing excellent perimeter defense, forcing turnovers, torching open-floor defenders and finishing at the basket. If he puts it all together this year, Denver will go deep.

     

    X-Factor

    JaVale McGee. If Lawson breaks out, Iguodala fits in and everything goes as planned, this team will win at least one playoff series. However, it still won't have the interior defense to beat the Lakers, Thunder or Heat. If JaVale McGee can consistently play like he's capable of, the Nuggets could win the championship.

4. San Antonio Spurs (52-30)

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    It seems to happen every couple of years. The Spurs enter the season appearing to be on the decline, only to dominate the NBA all year long. They did it again last year, stealing the spotlight from the Thunder, Heat and everyone else as they won their first 10 playoff games.

    However, the Spurs suddenly showed their age like never before, getting run off the court in four straight games by the Thunder. Still, with a less hectic schedule and people—again—writing them off, they should be at or near the top of the league all year.


    Biggest reason They'll Finish in Fourth

    Gregg Popovich. The man is the best coach in the NBA, period. His offense moves the ball better than any other and never settles for low-percentage shots, while his defense rotates like clockwork and allows his aging vets to dominate with their brains and not their bodies.


    Team MVP

    Tony Parker. Tim Duncan may be the greatest Spur ever, but Tony runs the show these days. His quickness, ball-handling, ability to finish or knock down a mid-range shot keeps defenses on their heels, a bad position to be in when the rest of the offense is ready to back you down or stripe a triple.


    X-Factor

    Stephen Jackson. As Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan age, the Spurs will have to run their offense increasingly through Tony Parker. But Parker has likely peaked, meaning a new option must pick up the slack. Stephen Jackson is the only viable candidate.

5. Los Angeles Clippers (49-33)

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    Chris Paul is hands-down the best point guard in the NBA, and he's capable of carrying LA a long way. Last season, a clicking Spurs machine destroyed the Clips' playoff momentum, but a more experienced, better defensive team (they've added Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf and Matt Barnes) figures to be a tougher out in this year's postseason.


    Biggest Reason They'll Finish Fifth

    Chris Paul. Without him, this is a typical, disheveled collection of raw youngsters and declining veterans. With him, this is a dynamic team that can run the floor and score at the rim, knock down wide-open perimeter shots and thrive in defined defensive roles.


    Team MVP

    Chris Paul. Get used to this theme.


    X-Factor

    Vinny Del Negro. This Clippers team has the roster to win a championship, but Vinny must first make them believe that they can, and second—and more importantly—give each player a clear role that they can succeed within.

6. Memphis Grizzlies (47-35)

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    The 2011-12 Grizzlies built on their postseason success a year earlier, finishing fourth in the West. However, the previous season's playoff magic disappeared, as Memphis had trouble with ball movement, outside shooting and bench production.

    The Grizzlies took a major step forward in drafting Tony Wroten, an offensive-minded combo guard who will help with ball movement. But the loss of sixth man O.J. Mayo leaves Memphis' bench weaker than ever, and the Grizz will be hard-pressed to beat the top teams out west.


    Biggest Reason They'll Finish Sixth

    Length and size. Whether it be Tony Allen's smothering 6'9" wingspan, Tony Wroten's 6'6 height, Rudy Gay's freakish 7'3" wingspan, Marc Gasol's huge 7'1" body, Marreese Speights' 7'0" height or Hamed Haddadi's absurdly long 7'2" frame, the Grizzlies use size and length to guard, block, rebound and score inside on any and every team.


    Team MVP

    Zach Randolph. While the team had some success during his absence last season, it became clear in the playoffs that a 100 percent Z-Bo was needed to carry this team. When healthy, he provides the plus rebounding at the four needed to control the glass, as well as what is perhaps the team's best outside shot.


    X-Factor

    Tony Wroten. If the rookie can continue to be what he was in college—a creative passer and impossible cover for smaller point guards—he could create space for everyone and transform the offense.

7. Golden State Warriors (44-38)

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    Perhaps no team will look as different in 2012-13 as it did in 2011-12. Or at least, no team will look so different for the better. The Warriors will start one of the NBA's best centers—Andrew Bogut—instead of one of the worst—Andris Biedrins. They will roll out one of the league's deepest benches—Brandon Rush, Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, Richard Jefferson—instead of one of the thinnest. They will be bigger, play more defense and win a lot more games—if, of course, they can stay more healthy.


    Biggest Reason They'll Finish in Seventh

    Offense. Last year's Warriors were arguably the best shooting team in the league, and they've added Harrison Barnes and Jarrett Jack to that group. Couple that with greater inside scoring (Bogut and Landry) and offensive rebounding (Draymond Green), and Golden State will be a scoring machine.


    Team MVP

    Andrew Bogut. And all he has to do is show up. Just the presence of a strong, respected big man down low will open up a ton of room for the Warriors offense and relieve even more pressure defensively. And showing up will be the hard part, because when on the court, Bogut will not only give the Warriors a much-needed starting center, he'll give them one of the best in the NBA.


    X-Factor

    Klay Thompson. Health is of course No. 1, but that's true for every team. If the Warriors are healthy, they'll be good but not great. They won't be great because they lack a shutdown perimeter defender and they lack a go-to scorer in crunch time. Klay Thompson has the potential to blossom into both of those things.

8. Dallas Mavericks (43-39)

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    After failing to land Deron Williams, Dwight Howard or any other marquee free agent this past summer, Marc Cuban decided to temporarily patch up a quickly disintegrating roster. While the additions of O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand will help them address the losses of Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Brendan Haywood, the team's offseason moves were lateral at best. Coming off a first-round sweep and aging fast, lateral equals downhill, and the Mavs will struggle to make the playoffs.

    Biggest Reason They'll Finish in Eighth

    Experience and Leadership. While a frustrating offseason and a season sure to include some low points would certainly crush many teams, don't expect the Mavs to fold. Guys like Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Elton Brand and most of all Rick Carlisle will keep the team level, which is why they'll emerge above Utah, Minnesota and the other up-and-comers out west.

    Team MVP

    Dirk Nowitzki. Even as he ages, he's still one of the toughest guys to guard in the league. Any time a team can put a seven-footer on the floor and give him the ability to make shots from anywhere and everywhere with consistency, that team has a chance to win the game.


    X-Factor

    Chris Kaman and Darren Collison. The Mavs have a legitimate chance at missing the playoffs, but they also won the title two years ago. The biggest difference between that team and last year's was interior defense and quickness in the backcourt, something Kaman and Collison could bring back.

9. Utah Jazz (42-40)

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    A year after losing Jerry Sloan, the Jazz found themselves right back in the playoffs. The team played its way into the eighth seed behind a dominant front court that could rebound, score inside and defend the rim. The quartet of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter returns, with an improved backcourt featuring Mo Williams.

    Unfortunately, Utah seemingly didn't do anything to penetrate further into the top eight this season, and the massively improved Warriors have joined it and Dallas in the dogfight for the final two playoff spots.


    Biggest reason Why They'll Finish Ninth

    Perimeter play. The Jazz don't have a bad backcourt, but they don't have the type of guards who can take over a game, light it up from deep or play lockdown defense. In a Western Conference full of dynamic point guards, the Jazz are going to miss Deron Williams more than last year.


    Team MVP

    Al Jefferson. The most underrated center in the game, Jefferson has averaged 19 points and 9.6 rebounds during his two seasons in Utah. He's an equally strong rim protector, hustles and bangs with the best of them and is the primary reason the Jazz made the playoffs last season.


    X-Factor

    Gordon Hayward. The Jazz have all the talent in the world up front and solid backcourt depth. However, they lack a wing player who can put serious pressure on opposing defenses, and this allows teams to match Utah's size and overload inside. If Hayward can break out as an outside threat and a slasher, it will make Utah's offense a load to handle.

10. Minnesota Timberwolves (35-47)

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    The Timberwolves played .500 basketball for much of last season, but fell apart when Ricky Rubio (and, later, Kevin Love) went down. Optimism was temporarily high in Minnesota, as a team featuring a full season of Love, Rubio and Brandon Roy could indeed dazzle. However, the Wolves are once again being plagued with injuries, and their thin bench and roster-wide lack of defense will see this team fall short.


    Biggest Reason They'll finish 10th

    Health. Rubio and Love will each miss significant time, and the prospects of Roy, Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic all playing full seasons is far-fetched. Although teams such as the Nuggets, Clippers and Warriors have fragile rosters as well, those teams all have the depth to fight through injuries.


    Team MVP

    Ricky Rubio. For all the numbers Kevin Love puts up, he is simply not good enough to lead a team to the playoffs. This Timberwolves team was completely different when Rubio played last season, as the rookie point guard found open shooters, forced turnovers and made all of his teammates better.


    X-Factor

    Rick Adelman. Minnesota is stuck in a strange middle ground out West. They have more proven talent than the almost sure-to-struggle teams below them, but not enough talent or depth to hang with the teams above them all season. But remember, Rick Adelman has taken many similarly perplexing Houston teams to the playoffs.

11. Houston Rockets (34-48)

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    After Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady's demise, the Rockets continued to build around a team that was built around them. They ended up with one of the deepest, if not the deepest team in the NBA, but their lack of high-end talent saw them finish ninth in the west for three straight seasons.

    This summer, the team finally came to its senses and began the quest to find a new core. They can't be mad at the results, as Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb, Terrence Jones and Royce White all have superstar potential. However, there will unquestionably be growing pains, starting this season.


    Biggest Reason They'll finish 11th

    Incredible rookies. Since Houston is in all-out rebuild mode, I'm considering finishing 11th an accomplishment. There are five teams out west not looking to win now, but Houston will win more than any of them due to potential Rookie of the Year Jeremy Lamb and a breakout season from first-year starting center Omer Asik.


    Team MVP

    Terrence Jones. Lamb will lead the team in scoring, Asik in rebounding and Lin in assists, but Terrence Jones will provide an awesome blend of physicality and athleticism that the team will adopt as an identity. It will lose a ton of games due to sloppy play and inexperience, but it will also upset many top teams by becoming the pesky underdogs that no one wants to play on the road.


    X-Factor

    Jeremy Lin. Even though the team looks to have no chance at the playoffs, the New York Knicks looked dead in the water when Melo and Stat went down last season. Just saying.

12. Sacramento Kings (32-50)

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    The Kings were bad last season, as they've been for several years now. It's a trend that is very unlikely to change this season, but there is reason to believe that they'll be better this season than last. The team lucked out in the draft, landing top-three prospect Thomas Robinson with the fifth pick. He gives them a high-ceiling frontcourt alongside DeMarcus Cousins. Still, until the team can knock down shots and play defense, it'll struggle.


    Biggest Reason They'll Finish 12th

    Finishing games. Keith Smart's team is starting to look like his and his mentor Don Nelson's teams looked in Golden State: a deep collection of raw young talent that could dazzle offensively and stay in games with anyone, but will be bottled up and scored upon at will during the final six minutes every night.


    Team MVP

    DeMarcus Cousins. For a player considered to be hopelessly enigmatic, Cousins did nothing but steadily improve last season. Everywhere. MPG. FG pct. FT pct. RPG. BPG. SPG. PPG. Less fouls. Less turnovers. He was the last guy expected to avoid a sophomore slump last year, so don't surprised if he becomes an All-Star in year three.


    X-Factor

    Thomas Robinson. If T-Rob struggles, the Kings will be DeMarcus Cousins, a lot of inconsistent offense and no defense. If Robinson excels and blocks shots, rebounds and scores like he did at Kansas, the Kings will have one of the toughest frontcourts to play against, and thus, more space for their young guards.

13. New Orleans Hornets (30-52)

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    Thanks to Chris Paul, the Hornets were a dangerous playoff team two years ago. Trading him made them instantly bad enough to win the draft lottery and select Anthony Davis, which made them instantly better. But even with the addition of Davis, Austin Rivers, Ryan Anderson and a healthy Eric Gordon, the Hornets appear far too young and have far too many holes to improve more than slightly.

    Biggest Reason They'll Finish 13th

    Rawness. Some day, Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers and Ryan Anderson could remind folks of Chris Webber, Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic. For now, expect the trio to struggle more than strive when asked to make big plays to win games.


    Team MVP

    Anthony Davis. Even though Davis will struggle to lead this team to success in year one, he'll be at the heart of the games they do win. He can impact the game in too many ways not to improve the Hornets a little bit, and the more of his talents Monty Williams utilizes, the better New Orleans will be.


    X-Factor

    Austin Rivers. Many have compared the young combo guard to Stephen Curry, and Rivers certainly has that kind of upside. If he has that Rookie of the Year type season, he'll alleviate pressure on Eric Gordon and help the team reach respectability. If he can't hold his own as a starting PG, the Hornets could have next year's No. 1 draft pick again.

14. Portland Trail Blazers (25-57)

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    A couple years back, Portland appeared to be entering a long period of success. Brandon Roy was a superstar, LaMarcus Aldridge was becoming one and it was a healthy Greg Oden away from competing for championships. Health never came to Oden and injuries destroyed Roy's career as well, so the Blazers are back to square one. An awesome draft has pointed the Blazers back in the right direction, but a gutted roster will struggle mightily.


    Biggest Reason They'll Finish 14th

    Scoring. LeMarcus Aldridge will be the No. 1, 2 and 3 option for Portland. Nicolas Batum can have a big game here and there, as can Wesley Matthews, but the Blazers will be hard-pressed convincing defenses not to double Aldridge on a nightly basis.


    Team MVP

    LeMarcus Aldridge. The 27-year-old has developed into one of the top, it not the top power forward in the NBA. He can score on the low block, knock down shots, rebound and pass the ball with the best of them and is the one player on Portland's roster that a team could conceivably gel around.


    X-Factor

    Nicolas Batum. The Blazers spent a lot of money and passed on some intriguing trade offers to keep Batum this summer. Considering that, the team is clearly counting on him becoming a dangerous wing player and second option after Aldridge. If he does so, the Blazers offense will be decent. If he doesn't, it will be very poor.

15. Phoenix Suns (23-59)

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    There's no way to cut corners here: Losing Steve Nash has crushed this team. Ever since its stacked 2005 roster with Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion and Nash started to crumble, the Suns have found average players who Nash has made into good teams. Raja Bell. Boris Diaw. Channing Frye. Marcin Gortat.

    Last year, the Suns nearly made the playoffs in the stacked West despite borderline starters at three positions. Nash was the Suns, and now without him (or Grant Hill), the roster—and future—looks dreadful.


    Biggest Reason They'll Finish 15th

    Goran Dragic. Not because Dragic is a bad point guard, but because he may a be a little too good. There are illusions in Phoenix that Dragic will be able to use his "weapons" on offense similarly to how Nash did in Alvin Gentry's system. When the reality sets in that only Nash could make these players look good, the season will be long lost.


    Team MVP

    Luis Scola. Many believe that Dragic, Gortat and Michael Beasley will lead this team to success, but it is more likely that all three will be exposed due to their increased roles and pressure. Scola has been a go-to guy before and may have been more relied upon in Houston than he will be early in Phoenix. This should help him quietly thrive early, and not so quietly later on.


    X-Factor

    Michael Beasley. Everyone knows how high Beasley's potential is. And although it seems very likely that he ever becomes the player he looked to be out of college, he's still 23 years old and could thrive in Alvin Gentry's offensive system. This will be a lottery team no matter what, but it won't finish in the cellar if Beasley breaks out.

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